To win with the sheathed sword is to achieve victory before the actual battle begins. After all, actual battle is taxing and produces casualties, and more to the point, involves the risk of defeat. Why risk defeat when it’s possible to win before the fighting starts?
Hence the skillful fighter puts himself into a position that makes defeat impossible and does not miss the moment for defeating the enemy.
—Sun Tzu, The Art of War
How does this apply to playing competitive games? One application is to use your “fear aura” to win the psychological battle with the opponent before the game begins. Winning before the game even starts is always the best way, but let’s suppose we actually have to play it. Even then, the “actual conflict” does not make up the entirety of a game. Most games begin with some kind of jockeying for position or resources, building up of attack potential and defense potential, and only later in the game does the conflict take place.
The conflict is where game theory kicks in full swing. During this phase of the game (in most competitive games), players are faced with decisions that depend on “what he thinks I think he thinks I think he will do.” Each player must measure the other and guess what he’ll do, guess if the opponent will expect that guess, and so on. It can get very messy. When things get messy, there is the possibility of surprise, luck, and defeat.
In many games, though, it’s possible to lay traps or perform tricks that must be dealt with before the actual conflict can start. What I mean is that it’s possible to throw up brick walls that the opponent must break through before the back-and-forth strategic play, the “fun part,” can even begin. If an enemy must first defeat three brick walls before even facing you in actual battle, then he’ll be weakened—or even defeated—before real battling begins.
In the real-time strategy war game StarCraft, a player makes a huge number of choices long before actual conflict occurs. These are decisions about how he builds his base and which units he produces when. The possibility of being defeated before “the actual game” begins is quite high. You’re Protoss and didn’t build any Observers? Too bad, because you die automatically to my invisible Dark Templars or invisible Lurkers. It doesn’t matter what you have, since you can’t even attack my invisible forces. You’re dead. Or perhaps you’re Protoss and didn’t build any anti-air (maybe you were going for a ground force of Zealots). That’s too bad too, since now you die automatically to my air force of Mutalisks, which again, you can’t even attack. Maybe your mistake was not checking the perimeter of your base carefully enough. I built a bunker just outside your visual range, and put four marines in it right at the start of the game. Then I built another bunker a little closer to your gas mine, this time in your view. You’ll have great difficulty stopping that second bunker, since you’ll have to take fire from the first bunker if you even try. I’ll eventually leap frog those four marines all the way to the heart of your base.
The list goes on and on and on. StarCraft games often go on quite long, with tactics, counter-tactics, and plenty of game theory and strategy. Your three bases in good position versus his five bases which are poorly defended. Should you cut off his mineral supply? Lay siege? Attack his flank? Sounds like we’re “actually playing” here. But many games of StarCraft are over before the “game” part even begins because there are so many ways one can lose the game before real conflict begins.
This isn’t necessarily a design flaw at all. You might just call it depth, though it can be frustrating to beginners who play ten games in a row of “Okay, now I know to always scout my base perimeter,” “Okay, now I know to always scout his base,” “Okay, now I know to build detectors quickly,” and so on. There are a lot of hoops you have to jump through before you can reasonably hope to get to the “actual game.”
Guilty Gear XX
Let us consider the strangely-named fighting game Guilty Gear XX. There is a character named Chipp in this game who has remarkably few hit points. The simplest combo or solid hit does an incredible amount of damage to him. When Chipp exchanges blows, Chipp dies. The Chipp player should not seek to engage in “actual fighting,” but instead should attempt to lock down or “rush down” his opponent. Chipp has amazingly fast movement and moves, the ability to teleport, to turn invisible, and to jump three times before landing (rather than just two like other characters). Chipp can unleash a flurry of attacks that force the opponent to block sequence after sequence. During this time, Chipp builds up his own “super meter,” which he can spend to make his rushing sequences even more effective. Meanwhile, the opponent is unable to do much and finds building up his own super meter difficult. When Chipp lands a combo on the opponent it won’t do that much damage, but Chipp often has the option to end the combo with a “freeze” move that puts the opponent into a guessing game. If they guess wrong, they get hit by another combo into another guessing game. If they guess right, they merely “get to play,” finally. Chipp’s prime directive is to never let the opponent really play, because if they are actually allowed to get their own game going, Chipp’s extremely low life total will put him at a disadvantage.
Magic: The Gathering
It is possible to win with the sheathed sword in the card game Magic as well. In the normal course of this game, each player will play one “land” card almost every turn for the first several turns. In Magic, these land cards are resources. So on the first turn, a player usually has access to just one land, then two on the second turn, etc. More powerful cards require you to have more lands. As the game progresses, each player has more land resources, allowing him to cast more powerful (or more numerous) spells.
But wouldn’t it be great if you could prevent the opponent from having lands at all? Deny him resources and he will have lost before the meat of the game even begins. This is exactly the aim of a “land destruction” deck in Magic. A deck of this type contains many lands (ensuring that you will always have enough) and many cards that destroy lands. Most of these cards destroy a single land controlled by the opponent, though there are variations on the theme. One card might cost less to use, but destroy one of your own lands as well as one of the opponent’s (that’s okay, you have plenty of lands). Another card might return a land to the opponent’s hand or to his deck. A player can only play one land per turn, so this puts the opponent behind in the race of resources. The idea is that if you hammer his resources while maintaining your own resources, the opponent will never have a chance to put together any game of his own. Once you strangle him of options, you can win the game yourself with even the weakest of offensive cards. Winning happens incidentally and without much effort when you have denied the opponent any chance to play.
Another example of this from Magic is a “disruption” deck. Disruption is a general term for stopping the opponent from getting his game together, so you could say that land destruction is one form of that. Usually, though, disruption refers to forcing the opponent to discard cards often, and destroying the cards he does get in play. You don’t need to make him discard everything, and you don’t need to destroy everything. You just need to get rid of his most important stuff before he ever gets to actually use it. This allows you to get away with even hokey ways of winning because you’ve reduced your opponent to a quivering mess, unable to do much of anything to stop you.
Street Fighter Alpha 2
I’ll now tell the story of one of my own Street Fighter tournament victories. The tournament was called the East Coast Championships 4, or ECC4. I won the Street Fighter Alpha 2 portion of the ECC3 tournament, so I felt a lot of pressure to win again. I made it to the finals where I faced veteran player Thao Duong. Thao plays only one character (Chun Li), and he’s incredibly robotic, meaning he executes moves perfectly and rarely makes mistakes.
I was undefeated in the tournament so far, and Thao had one loss (it was double elimination format). This means Thao had to beat me 4 out of 7 games to be even with me, and another set of 4 out of 7 to win. I only had to win one set of 4 out of 7 to win.
I started by playing Zangief, my secret counter to Chun Li. Because it’s widely believed Chun Li totally destroys Zangief (but not mine!), it would be a flashy way to win. Whether it was my year of no practice or Thao’s playing skills or Chun Li’s dominance of the game I can’t be sure, but Zangief was not up to the task that day. No problem, since I would switch to my standard Chun Li killer: Ryu. I scraped together a win or two, but again my lack of practice was showing and Thao won by greater and greater margins. I then realized the horror of what I would have to do, and what I would become somewhat famous for in the Street Fighter community. I realized that the only remaining character I could reasonably play in a tournament was Rose, and furthermore that Rose, though very good against most characters, really only has one effective move against Chun Li: low strong.
This is where Sun Tzu comes in. My use of Rose’s low strong move is both a method of winning before fighting and of waiting. The low strong is an uninspiring little punch that doesn’t have all that much range, but it has amazing priority to beat other attacks. It’s also incredibly fast, allowing Rose to do multiple low strongs in a row with only the tiniest of gaps in between.
The low strong was my brick wall—my first test. The only problem is that there was no second test. And worse yet, there really wasn’t much “actual fighting” in store for Thao should he get past my “trick.” I could only hope that he’d fumble in trying to get around it, and even become frustrated enough to make mistakes. In retrospect, this is not the best approach to take against the robotic master of move execution himself, but it’s still preferable to no strategy at all, which was my alternative.
I low stronged my little heart out. Probably over 90% of my moves were low strong, done at a very particular range, and with a particular pattern of timing that I dare not reveal (let me keep some secrets). I had infinite patience to low strong forever, forcing Thao to defeat this trick. If he could beat it, we would then have to actually play, and at that point surely he would win. But fortunately, he never did beat it: he fought it head on. At times, he would decide not to attack, not to beat against a brick wall. I used that opportunity to get at the optimal range (which is one pixel farther from him than the range of my low strong). From this range, I continued to low strong forever. I wasn’t winning by doing that, but I wasn’t losing either. Even the robotic Thao would eventually tire and attack, sometimes at the wrong times out of annoyance or desperation. Spectators reported that I did an amazing 18 consecutive low strongs without either myself or Thao doing any other moves.
A side effect of my low strongs is that they create a “baseline expectation” of what I’m going to do. The sneaky roundhouse I do after the 17th low strong is pretty tricky, actually. I mean, wouldn’t you expect an 18th low strong after the 17th one? (Note: I was actually even more sneaky by doing the 18th low strong, then the low roundhouse.)
My story is dragging on as much as that match did. Each game is best 2 out of 3 rounds, and games tended to go the full 3 rounds. They went the full count of 4-3 when Thao won the first set, and all the way to the 14th and final game, where I won 4-3 in the second set to win the tournament. I collapsed in dehydration and drank a quart of red Fierce Berry Gatorade without pause. Even today, Fierce Berry Gatorade tastes like victory to me, but I digress.
Had I ever actually fought Thao “normally” with Rose, he would have killed me easily. Instead, in an amazingly boring and non-crowd-pleasing show, I attempted to prevent actual fighting through my “brick wall trick” of low strong. Furthermore, I bored my opponent into attacking hastily at times, and generally frustrated him, or at least think I did.
It’s interesting to note that early rounds of Street Fighter tournaments are often dominated by “tricks” like the ones I’ve described. Few players have the will to keep those brick walls up forever, though, and eventually resort to “actually playing.” Also interesting is that the last rounds of Street Fighter tournaments—especially the finals round to determine the top two players—very rarely operate anything like I’ve described. Far more often, the players good enough to get the final two are also good enough to easily avoid the kind of roadblocks I’ve been talking about, even if they have to devise countermeasures on the spot. The usual case at such high levels of play is “actual fighting” right off the bat, the very thing I try to put off as long as possible in a tournament match. So it seems that (my own exploits excepted!) tricks will only get you so far. Above a certain level of play, you must actively try to win the game, not just wait for the opponent to hand it to you. To the benefit of the spectators, when the best face the best, there are more often two bloody, clashing swords than a sheathed one.